Numbers Chapter 21: Fiery Serpent on the Pole, The King’s Highway

Mar 19th, 2010 | By | Category: Numbers, Verse by Verse --Studies led by Br. Frank Shallieu (Click on Book name)

Numbers Chapter 21: Fiery Serpent on the Pole, The King’s Highway

Num. 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.

Num. 21:2 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.

Num. 21:3 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.

For verse 1, the Revised Standard has, “When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive.” Arad is down in the more or less habitable portion of southern Israel (that is, not in the desert). The land between Beer-sheba and Eilat is almost all barren desert with little verdure. The king did not wait until the Israelites came to Arad but went farther south to confront them. Therefore, the battle took place near the boundary line where the 12 spies were originally sent forth.

God hearkened to the Israelites’ vow to destroy the king of Arad and the satellite cities of the Canaanites in that portion of the land. Of course the term “Canaanites” embraced more than just Arad, for they were in other places of Israel as well. The Lord instructed the Israelites to destroy seven major enemies when they entered the land. “When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou” (Deut. 7:1). In antitype, the seven represent different types of sin that must be overcome by the new creature. Considered in the broad sense, the word “Canaanite” is synonymous with the thought of an enemy of the Lord, but in the land of Canaan, there were six other tribes as well.

When the Israelites were told to enter the land, they wanted to search it out first. When Moses brought the seemingly reasonable matter to the Lord, permission was given, and 12 spies were sent out, one spy from each tribe. Upon the return of the 12 spies, ten of them—all except Joshua and Caleb—gave an unfavorable report. Because the people listened to the unfavorable counsel, they were fearful of the Amorites, who were described as people of great stature. As a result, the Israelites did not enter the land, yet shortly thereafter they disobeyed again by saying, “We will enter the land and fight.” In the ensuing battle, many Israelite lives were lost because this time the Lord had not told them to go into the land. Moses and some others remained where they were, refusing to be a party to the disobedience. The foibles and inconsistencies of fallen, depraved human nature can be seen in these incidents. The old heart, the reasoning of the old man, is desperately wicked and exceedingly deceitful (Jer. 17:9).

This time the Israelites properly first sought permission from the Lord. God “hearkened to the voice of Israel,” and they were successful in the battle with the Canaanites in that locale. The name Hormah means “utter destruction.”

Num. 21:4 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.

Num. 21:5 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.

Num. 21:6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

The Israelites compassed the land of Edom, which is down in the desert floor. The floor of the Arabah is a dry, deep, wide valley that extends from the south end of the Dead Sea all the way down to the Gulf of Eilat. A similar valley on the north end of the Dead Sea is related to Ezekiel’s Temple.

“They journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea.” The Israelites had been up near Kadesh-barnea. Now they journeyed down by way of the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. In the dry wadi, they had neither bread nor water. When they murmured, they were bitten by “fiery serpents.” What are these “serpents”?

Comment: The Berean Manual suggests they were cobras.

Comment: The fact that the Israelites “loatheth this light bread” (the manna) shows their hearts were hardened.

Reply: Having the right heart condition makes the difference. “The LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 13:3). Superficially there was a reason for the Israelites to complain, but who was leading them? The Lord. Therefore, although the murmuring was ostensibly against Moses, it was really a reflection on God.

On this long journey, the 2 million Israelites traveled about 20 miles each day. That means they walked about ten hours per day.

As for the “fiery serpents,” we notice, first, that the vipers, or snakes, were plural. Different reasons are given as to why they were “fiery.” One reason is the color, and another is the effect of the strong venomous bite, which caused the victims to experience internal fire and die. Vipers in the deserts of the world are known to cause such reactions. Some of the smallest snakes, such as the cobra of India, are the deadliest.

Num. 21:7 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.

Num. 21:8 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.

Num. 21:9 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.

God told Moses to make a copper serpent transfixed to a pole, the copper picturing perfect humanity. The serpent had to be reasonably large—larger than life-size—in order for the nation to view it. To hold the copper serpent, the pole required a crosspiece. Otherwise, the serpent would circle the pole all the way up, giving the appearance of a barber pole. With the crosspiece at the upper end of the pole and the serpent wrapped around the crosspiece, the result resembled the symbol for medicine, Aesculapius. How interesting, for if those who were bitten looked upon the serpent on the pole, they were cured!

It is a known fact in chemistry that poison is fought with poison. Sometimes medicinal cures even have a skull and crossbones on the outside. The “X” crossbones is a symbol of Christ, and the skull indicates death. Of course the average person does not understand the symbolism, but it has been overruled, just as many places and events have been overruled to teach spiritual lessons. Thus it took death to cure death. The fiery serpents were a curse to whomever they bit, but looking at the brazen serpent, pictured as a curse, had a negating or blocking effect that disannuled the death penalty. In the antitype, the serpent on the cross is Jesus, who said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14). The serpent on the pole is probably more representative of Jesus’ death than of his resurrection, for it pictures his crucifixion and his being made a curse upon a tree. God pronounced a malediction on Adam for his sin, and it takes a curse to nullify a curse. A tree brought the curse upon Father Adam, and subsequently the dying race was started in his loins.

And so Jesus, in effect, with an unborn race in his loins, countermanded or offset the penalty of Adam and his yet unborn children.

At least the people recognized that they had sinned. Of their own accord, they went to Moses and said, “We have sinned.” Then they asked Moses to pray for them.

Num. 21:10 And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth.

Num. 21:11 And they journeyed from Oboth, and pitched at Ije-abarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sunrising.

Moab, the next country, bordered Edom on the north side and was adjacent to the east (or right) side of the Dead Sea. The defiles that marked the boundary of Moab were two wadis, Arnon in the north and Zared in the south. The bottom defile also marked the northern boundary of Edom. Now the Israelites were journeying toward Jericho, their ultimate purpose being to enter the Promised Land by crossing the river Jordan at the north end of the Dead Sea. After they camped in Oboth and left, they went to Ije-abarim, which is in the wilderness and “opposite Moab, toward the sunrise [the east]” (RSV).

Moses had wanted to travel on the King’s Highway, which was up on the mountain range.

That road was the quickest and most efficient way to get up to Jericho, but the Lord’s providence led them way down on the plain through very barren territory. From there, they went north and skirted the northern part of Edom as well as the east border of Moab.

Num. 21:12 From thence they removed, and pitched in the valley of Zared.

Num. 21:13 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.

Num. 21:14 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,

The “book of the wars of the LORD” is one of the lost books that probably one day will be found like the scrolls in the caves of Qumran. “What he [the LORD] did in the Red sea” refers to when He led the Israelites through the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus.

Zared is the southern boundary and Arnon the northern boundary of Moab. Of the two wadis, Arnon is more distinct as a stream because it flows with regularity.

A little below the Dead Sea on the right side was Edom. To the north was Moab at the bottom end of the Dead Sea and on the right side. Still farther north were the Amorites. Edom was Esau, the brother of Jacob. Lot’s two sons were Moab and Ammon, and Ammon was slightly north of the Dead Sea and a little more inland on the east, or right. From south to north, the order of these lands was Edom, Moab, the Amorites, and Ammon.

Num. 21:15 And at the stream of the brooks that goeth down to the dwelling of Ar, and lieth upon the border of Moab.

Num. 21:16 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.

Num. 21:17 Then Israel sang this song, Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it:

Num. 21:18 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:

The song starts with “Spring up” and ends with “their staves.” Verse 19 should begin with “And from the wilderness.”

For the well to have been dug with staves, the water could not have been too deep below ground level. Thus, whenever the rain came, it sank into an invisible cistern, as it were, that was below the surface of the sand. Under the counsel and instruction of the Lord at the hand of Moses, the princes were able to pierce this source of water with their staves. Probably the “princes” and “nobles” were the same individuals, being a couplet in the song.

Num. 21:19 And from Mattanah to Nahaliel: and from Nahaliel to Bamoth:

Num. 21:20 And from Bamoth in the valley, that is in the country of Moab, to the top of Pisgah, which looketh toward Jeshimon.

Num. 21:21 And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying,

Num. 21:22 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.

With Edom, when Moses proposed to travel up the King’s Highway, he promised to purchase water. Edom refused but did sell the Israelites water when they went down into the valley and around Edom. The Edomites felt they could not trust the Israelites.

Q: Were the Israelites near the Promised Land at this time?

A: They were getting closer. The Amorites extended up to the Valley of Jericho at the north end of the Dead Sea. Their territory was subsequently given to the 2 1/2 tribes east of Jordan.

Num. 21:23 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.

Num. 21:24 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.

Num. 21:25 And Israel took all these cities: and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the villages thereof.

The Amorite territory not only bordered the north end of the Dead Sea but went farther north a fairly considerable distance to another river, Jabbok. The Jabbok is mentioned in the news today with regard to Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Israel is concerned lest the Jabbok be diverted to diminish the flow of water going into the Jordan River.

Comment: The Israelites were shown no kindness by any of these peoples. This treatment fits the antitype, for we have no peace in the present life from the enemies that keep assailing us.

Reply: Yes, and of course Edom is a picture of Christendom.

Num. 21:26 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.

Num. 21:27 Wherefore they that speak in proverbs say, Come into Heshbon, let the city of Sihon be built and prepared:

Num. 21:28 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.

The land occupied by the Amorites was originally given to the Moabites. The Amorites took away the northern half of the land of Moab—a tremendous portion of land.

Num. 21:29 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.

Num. 21:30 We have shot at them; Heshbon is perished even unto Dibon, and we have laid them waste even unto Nophah, which reacheth unto Medeba.

“Medeba” is now called Madeba. The proverb in verses 27–30 was famous and meaningful to the people of that day. The Amorites gloated over their victory, and the Moabites smarted under the defeat.

Num. 21:31 Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites.

Num. 21:32 And Moses sent to spy out Jaazer, and they took the villages thereof, and drove out the Amorites that were there.

Num. 21:33 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.

Bashan was still farther north, just below the Sea of Galilee. Going south to north, the order now was Edom, Moab, land of the Amorites, and Bashan (later called the land of Gilead).

Num. 21:34 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.

Num. 21:35 So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land.

The account has been saying that in this journey, the Israelites fought some battles. In winning the battles, they now occupied entirely the land of the Amorites and the land of the Bashanites.

Q: Were only Edom, Moab, and Ammon still intact?

A: Yes, Edom was not destroyed and the southern half of Moab, which was not taken by the  Amorites, was preserved. The northern half of Moab, which had been conquered by the Amorites, now fell into the hands of the Israelites. In addition, the Israelites also took the land of Bashan (or Gilead).

Q: How far north did Ammon go?

A: Ammon extended up to the Sea of Galilee but was farther inland. Today Ammon is an artificial type of property something like Armenia, a landlocked territory.

(1996–1997 Study)

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