DESPITE ONGOING GRUMBLING AND COMPLAINING, THE LORD’S PEOPLE EXPERIENCE HIS GRACIOUS SALVATION
Our spiritual journey involves a myriad of different experiences. Sometimes the Lord graciously provides victory where previously we had suffered defeat. All of us need to respond in faith to the Lord’s exclusive provision of salvation when we are under penalty of judgment. Sometimes our times of frustration and deprivation are met with abundant blessing and provision from the Lord. But we need to turn away from grumbling and complaining; we need to repent when we have sinned; we need to look to the Lord in faith; we need to celebrate our gracious salvation.
Peter Wallace: Tonight’s story reminds us that whenever God takes you down a long and difficult road, there is refreshment at the end – there is victory – there is peace (shalom) for those who repent. Sometimes the road can be 40 years long. Sometimes it can take 40 years until you learn your lesson – and repent! But – yes, there is a warning here – not everyone repents! And so as we go through our passage tonight, let us learn to repent and believe the gospel!
Ronald Allen: It is not unusual in Scripture, or in our own lives, to have a story of defeat follow quickly on a story of victory. The author of Numbers places two such contrasting stories side-by-side in this chapter, perhaps to show the reader that while progress was being made toward dependence on the Lord, there was still a long way to go for these desert people! Right on the heels of the story of Israel’s great victory over the Canaanites of the Negev, they fall on their own swords on the issue of food again in the rebellion that leads to the story of the bronze serpent.
I. (:1-3) SALVATION FROM ENEMIES IN PLACE OF PREVIOUS DEFEAT –
PROMISE TO DESTROY THE CANAANITES AT HORMAH
A. (:1) Capture of Some Israelites
1. Identification of the Enemy
“When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev,”
Gordon Wenham: This brief notice records Israel’s first victory over the Canaanites and heralds the dawn of a new era. The long delay in the fulfilment of the promises is nearly over. It was at Hormah that an abortive attempt was made to enter Canaan after the spies returned from their mission (14:45). It was there nearly forty years later that they triumphed for the first time, a pledge of the conquest of the land that was soon to begin (cf. Eph. 1:13–14).
2. Intelligence Gleaned by the Enemy
“heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim,”
3. Initiative by the Enemy to Capture Some Israelites
“then he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive.”
B. (:2) Commitment to Destroy the Enemy
“So Israel made a vow to the LORD, and said, ‘If Thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.’”
Raymond Brown: They were prayerful, resolute . . . and encouraged. This initial victory was won at the place of earlier defeat. The Lord was assuring them that, in coming days, things would be different. When the Lord gave the Canaanites over to them (3) it was an immense boost to their morale. This first conquest became the precursor of later triumphs (21:21–35). On the threshold of Canaan, the Lord was assuring them that, by his grace and in his power, life could be different.
Timothy Ashley: The Hiphil of ḥāram, “to put to the ban,” means to give the conquered people (and things) to Yahweh by destroying them, thus not claiming the spoils of victory for themselves, but for God, the real victor (cf. Deut. 7:1–2; 20:17; Josh. 6:17, 21; etc.).
C. (:3) Conclusion of the Matter
1. Deliverance by the Lord
“and the LORD heard the voice of Israel,
and delivered up the Canaanites;”
Constable: This was the Israelites’ first victory over the Canaanites, and it was undoubtedly a great confidence builder for them. It came after the Israelites vowed to obey God completely by exterminating these Canaanites if He would give them victory as He had promised. In this vow the Israelites simply promised to obey God. The conquest of Canaan must have seemed more certain to the Israelites now than ever before.
2. Destruction by the Israelites
“then they utterly destroyed them and their cities.
Thus the name of the place was called Hormah.”
Hormah = the ban place; to devote to destruction
Gordon Wenham: Deuteronomy justifies this treatment of the Canaanites as a preventive against apostasy (7:4). Brutal as it seems to us, it is of a piece with the rest of Israel’s penal code, which insists on the death penalty for a wide range of religious offences. Fidelity to the Lord and the purity of the faith ranked highest of the values in Israel’s ethical and religious system.
Ronald Allen: Here was the first occasion for a military operation by the new generation. The text emphasizes several things:
(1) that the king of Arad was a Canaanite (vv. 1, 3);
(2) that he deliberately provoked an attack on Israel, including the taking of hostages; and
(3) that, unlike their rebellious fathers (14:41-45), the people of Israel fought this time under the blessing and empowerment of the Lord (v. 3).
II. (:4-9) SALVATION FROM THE JUDGMENT OF DEATH –
PICTURE OF SALVATION = FIERY SERPENT ON A STANDARD
A. (:4) Frustration of the People Builds
1. Difficult Journe
“Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea,
to go around the land of Edom;”
2. Difficult People
“and the people became impatient because of the journey.”
Literally – “the soul of the people was short”
Raymond Brown: The terrain was difficult. Lawrence of Arabia described its ‘hopelessness and sadness, deeper than all the open deserts we had crossed … there was something sinister, something actively evil in this snake-devoted Sirhan, proliferant of salt water, barren palms, and bushes which served neither for grazing nor for firewood’. In ancient times, the area was notorious for its poisonous snakes. During its campaign to Egypt, Esarhaddon’s army had to deal with its ‘two-headed serpents whose attack spelled death’. . .
The people were irritable and fractious, depressed at having to make such a long trek round Edomite territory. Physically exhausted and emotionally stressed, they became spiritually arid. Frustrated and weary, it was not long before they began to repeat their fault-finding recital of familiar complaints. There was little that was new except that, instead of pinning the blame on their leaders, they hurled their accusations in the face of the Lord: they spoke against God and against Moses (5). Their anger was expressed in resentment about their preferable past, gloomy future and frugal present.
Ronald Allen: The people had to detour because of the intransigent attitude of Edom. Each step they made south and east, rather than north and west, seemed to be an unbearable back-tracking. They rejoined the road to the Sea of Reeds to make a broad circuit around Edom. Finally, it got to them again. They had been so very near the land and had even tasted the sweet wine of victory. But now they were wandering again, and in their wanderings they seemed to be as far away from “real” food as ever. . .
There is a pattern to complaining; it is habit forming. The tendency among people is to go beyond where one left off the last time, to become ever more egregious, ever more outspoken. Rarely does a complaining person become milder in his complaints. Finally, complaining becomes self-destructive.
B. (:5) Familiar Complaint Lodged
“And the people spoke against God and Moses”
1. Resentment of the Lord’s Wisdom and Guidance
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt,”
2. Fear of the Worst Possible Outcome
“to die in the wilderness?”
3. Magnifying Challenges
“For there is no food and no water,”
“and we loathe this miserable food.’”
Gordon Wenham: This is the last recorded occasion that Israel grumbled about their food (cf. 11:4ff.; Exod. 16) and yearned for the delicacies of Egypt. They describe the manna as worthless food. The term worthless (qĕlōqēl) is found only here and may be derived from qillēl, to ‘despise’ or qal, ‘light’, hence the av rendering. Whichever translation is preferred, it is a disparaging comment on the bread of heaven (Pss. 78:24–25; 105:40; cf. John 6:31). As on the previous occasion, it provoked God’s anger (cf. 11:33), this time in the form of fiery serpents, whose bite was lethal. It seems likely that the inflammation caused by this bite prompted them to be called fiery.
Raymond Brown: A contemporary psychotherapist has spoken about the basic problems that cause people to seek help, identifying them as ‘the fearsome foursome’. All four make their appearance in this narrative: resentment (‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?’), fear (‘to die in the desert’), self-absorption (‘we detest this miserable food!’) and guilt (‘We sinned when we spoke against the LORD’). At the heart of the people’s discontent was a series of conspicuous spiritual defects.
First, they did not acknowledge his power. Their deliverance from Egypt uniquely demonstrated his omnipotence and now they regretted it ever happened. How could anyone witness the astonishing miracle at the Red Sea and not believe that the Lord was on their side? Even in those days they whined that they were about to die in the desert, though God had better things in store for them.
Secondly, they did not appreciate his generosity. Ever since that dramatic escape from the tyranny of their oppressors, the Lord had fed them with this heaven-sent gift. The manna had sustained Israel’s people over the past four decades. Could they not thank him for its miraculous supply rather than denigrate its dietary limitations? Ingratitude has no place among believers; it is pagans who do not give thanks, not Christians.
Thirdly, they did not recognize his mercy. He had fed them with manna on days when they least deserved it. It was not given to them as a reward for faithfulness; its daily supply had fallen gently during their times of strident rebellion and sick apostasy as well as in periods of grateful contentment.
Fourthly, they did not accept his sovereignty. It still irritated them that the older generation would not see the promised land, but repetitive complaining would not alter it. The Lord was keeping them out of Canaan, not in order to be vindictive, but to prepare a better community for the tough days that lay ahead. Crowds of persistent complainers would hardly make a competent invasion force. Life does not always give us exactly what we want, and for most of us there are inevitable disappointments. When we find ourselves in circumstances we are powerless to change, it hardly helps to turn life into an incessant dirge.
Finally, they did not trust his word. The desert community were more adept at itemizing their grievances than at counting their blessings. The Lord had promised to meet their needs, and it was iniquitous to forget his faithfulness, despise his care and deny his providence. They were his greatly loved children, a truth treasured by their later prophets, and he would not allow anything to befall them that was outside his sovereign will.
C. (:6) Fiery Serpents Dispatched for Judgment
“And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people
and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.”
Wiersbe: In the past, when Israel had sinned, the glory of the Lord would usually appear and the judgment of the Lord would follow. But this time, there was no warning. The judgment came immediately as the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people. They had rejected God’s gift of the life and health form heaven, so God sent them suffering and death from the earth, and many of the people died.
D. (:7) Facing Their Sins – Repentance and Intercession
1. Repentance by the People
“So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you;’”
Iain Duguid: Repentance is not simply a matter of recognizing and bemoaning what great sinners we are. As long as we are doing that, our eyes are still fixed on ourselves. Repentance is turning our heart to Christ in the midst of recognizing our own sin and fixing our eyes once again on the remedy for that sin, offered to us in the gospel. Repentance is catching ourselves when we have grumbled over some challenge to our comfort or our sense of being in control of our lives or our acceptance by the in-crowd and deliberately turning our face afresh toward Jesus. Repentance is picking ourselves up after we have sought comfort in some earthly substitute for God, whether food or lustful thoughts or shopping or gossip or an angry outburst, and saying to ourselves, “This is not my comfort. My only refuge is Jesus.” The life of faith is a life of repentance that is constantly turning away from sin and turning toward Jesus.
Peter Wallace: What has been missing from the last 6 rebellions? Repentance! Moses and Aaron have interceded for Israel – but Israel never confessed their sin! Israel never repented! Now Israel repents. This is a great model of repentance: “We have sinned.” There are no excuses offered – just an acknowledgement of guilt. And then the sin is clearly identified: “we have spoken against the LORD and against you.” Hey, this is exciting! Israel has learned their lesson! Brothers and sisters, do you realize how exciting this is? The death of Aaron symbolized the transition – but here we have the substance of the change! Without repentance the cycles of sin and death will just go on forever! Own up to your sin.
2. Intercession by Moses
“intercede with the LORD,
that He may remove the serpents from us.
And Moses interceded for the people.”
E. (:8-9) Fiery Serpent Displayed for Salvation
1. (:8) Provision for Salvation
“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 shall live.’”
Roy Gane: The bronze snake, however, is appointed by God, who alone is capable of healing his people. So although it is symbolic, it is not magical. Nor is it an offering to the Lord. Yet it does function like the Philistine models in the sense of acknowledging that a specific punishment has come from the Lord because of sin against him. Thus, to confront the serpent sculpture is to confront one’s own sin and its result. It is the spiritual equivalent of looking in the mirror. That unspoken confession is all it takes to live. . .
It is deeply disturbing that Jesus identified himself with Moses’ snake, which symbolized sin and death. We would much prefer to think of him as the innocent “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The “snake” idea is even more repulsive when we remember the Genesis story of how a satanic serpent introduced sin and death into the world by instigating the disobedience of Eve and Adam (Gen. 3; cf. Rev. 12:9). However, rather than gently backing off the identification of Christ with sin, Paul jarringly rams it home: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Ronald Allen: Now we think again of the enormity of what Moses was asked to do, of the taboos he was asked to break. . . The people had called the bread of heaven detestable. Moses is commanded of God to make an image of something truly detestable in their culture and to hold that high on a pole as their only means of deliverance from disease. Only those who looked at the image of the snake would survive the venom that coursed through their bodies. This is an extraordinary act of cultural shock, an exceptionally daring use of potent symbols. As the people had transformed in their own thinking the gracious bread of heaven into detestable food, so the Lord transforms a symbol of death into a source of life and deliverance. The rejection of God’s grace brings a symbol of death. The intervention of God’s grace brings a source of life.
S. Lewis Johnson: The remedy is a supernatural remedy because a brazen serpent cannot heal. It is sufficient for all, everyone who looks is healed; it is infallible, you do not have to look twice, you have to look once. You know, do not read any one who said I looked, but I was not healed, he looked and he was. God is not treating us all fairly. It was infallible, it was enduring. In fact, this serpent existed on into the time of Hezekiah. We know it was unique. It was the only way in which you could be healed and it was personal.
2. (:9) Appropriation of Salvation
“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.”
Gordon Wenham: Men dying in sin are saved by the dead body of a man suspended on the cross. Just as physical contact was impossible between those bitten by snakes and the copper snake, so sinners are unable to touch the life-giving body of Christ. Yet in both situations the sufferers must appropriate God’s healing power themselves: by looking at the copper snake or ‘believing in the Son of man’ (John 3:15).
Ronald Allen: The bread is a picture of Jesus; as the Bread of Heaven he is the proper nourisher of his people. The bronze snake is a picture of Jesus, who became sin for us as he hung on that awful tree. The manna had to be eaten. The snake had to be seen. The commands of Scripture are for doing. The manna was no good if left to rot. The metal snake would not avail if none looked at it. The manna and the snake are twin aspects of the grace of God.
Peter Wallace: This bronze serpent remained a sign for hundreds of years. We are told that in Hezekiah’s day it was finally broken, because the people of Israel were making offerings to it. This is a reminder to us that good things – even things that God himself appointed – can be turned to idolatry, and thus need to be destroyed.
III. (:10-20) SALVATION FROM DEPRIVATION IN THE WILDERNESS –PROGRESSION IN THEIR JOURNEYS TO POSITION THE NATION FOR ENTERING THE PROMISED LAND
A. (:10-15) Series of Locations for Camping
1. (:10) Camping at Oboth
“Now the sons of Israel moved out and camped in Oboth.”
Gordon Wenham: The tempo of advance quickens as Israel approaches the promised land. Extracts from the travel log interspersed with fragments of old poems convey the sense of elation as the goal of their wanderings comes into sight. Their route took them east of the territory of Moab, which covered the fertile high ground on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, through the drier area between Moab and the desert, the arid part of the Dead Sea valley.
It seems probable that the last section of the itinerary (14–20) anticipates the outcome of the battles with Sihon and Og described in verses 21–35, for it involved passing through the territory of the Amorites. This is confirmed by the fuller account in Deuteronomy 2–3. Again, it is impossible to locate precisely many of the places mentioned here, but the mention of Zered and Arnon, rivers which flow into the Dead Sea from the east, give a clue to their approximate locations.
Henry Morris: It is difficult to trace the various moves of the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness. The itineraries in Numbers 21 and Numbers 33, for example, seem impossible to correlate in any detail. It must be remembered, however, that the Israelite nation consisted of several million people plus all their cattle, horses and equipment. They must have been scattered over a large area of the wilderness in order to have pasturage for their flocks and herds. It is possible that much of the moving described in the Mosaic records refers mainly to moving the tabernacle and its attendants (along with Moses)–perhaps making a circuit among the various tribal encampments.
2. (:11) Camping at Iyeabarim
“And they journeyed from Oboth, and camped at Iyeabarim,
in the wilderness which is opposite Moab, to the east.”
3. (:12) Camping in Wadi Zered
“From there they set out and camped in Wadi Zered.”
4. (:13-15) Camping at Arnon
a. (:13) Located Between Moab and the Amorites
“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.”
b. (:14-15) Lore in the Book of the Wars of the Lord
“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.’”
Raymond Brown: This next section, the last travelogue of the book, extends to the time when the Israelites reached their strategic destination prior to crossing the Jordan, the desert that faces Moab (11), the border of Moab (13), the valley in Moab (20) and, finally, ‘the plains of Moab … across from Jericho’ (22:1). It ‘creates the impression of a determined and purposeful march toward the promised land.’ On their way through the Transjordan, the travelers recorded a series of changing experiences. Not all of their camping sites can be precisely located, but the purpose of the passage is more doctrinal than geographical. It offers a portrait of the Israelites’ dependence on God for continuing guidance, essential resources and military success.
Constable: The “Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21:14) was a collection of songs that commemorated God’s glorious acts on behalf of the Israelites. Apparently Moses or one of his contemporaries wrote or edited it. The fragment of one of these songs that the writer included here (Numbers 21:14-15) describes the Arnon. The fact that Moses inserted this strophe reflects the joy that the Israelites felt on this occasion.
B. (:16-18a) Significance of Well at Beer
1. (:16) Provision of Water by the Lord
“And 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.’”
2. (:17-18) Praise to the Lord via Commemorative Song
“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.’”
Dennis Cole: With such a long history of complaining about the lack of water, the celebration of God’s granting of water by instruction to Moses marks another turning point in the narrative of God’s dealing with Israel. The recent occasion of Moses gathering the people to see God supply their need ended in judgment and despair for the prophet (20:2–13). Death was meted out to the last group who grumbled (21:5–6). Now Israel was given further incentive to continue toward the goal of the Promised Land.
Brueggemann: As Israel traveled on through Moab’s capital (21:15, 28) they came to a town named “Well” (21:16), where they sang of a well that princes had commissioned or dedicated with the symbols of their office (21:18). The narrative quotes a short bit of a song from The Book of the Wars of the Lord (21:14). Like The Book of Jashar (Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18), this was probably an ancient book of popular songs celebrating Israel’s struggle to possess Canaan. This could have been a work song for men digging the well (Eissfeldt 1965:88) or celebrating its completion (Ashley 1993:413). For Israel it expressed their joy at God’s repeated provision of water (Exod 15:22–25; 17:1–7). If the ancients sang of a well in the sand, how much more fitting it is to sing of Jesus’ Spirit that springs up in our souls (John 7:37–39) and of drinking of Christ (1 Cor 10:4), never to thirst again (John 4:10–15).
C. (:18b-20) Series of Progressive Destinations
1. (:18b) To Mattanah
“And from the wilderness they continued to Mattanah,”
2. (:19a) To Nahaliel
“and from Mattanah to Nahaliel,”
3. (:19b) To Bamoth
“and from Nahaliel to Bamoth,”
4. (:20) To Pisgah
“and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the land of Moab, at the top of Pisgah which overlooks the wasteland.”
Peter Wallace: Verses 19-20 make clear that they have now arrived at the plains of Moab. Here they will remain for a few months until Moses dies, and Joshua leads them into the land. All the events of the last 15 chapters of Numbers – and the sermons of the book of Deuteronomy – happen here on the plains of Moab.