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(MT versing)
Arad Conquered Canaanites Defeated at Hormah Events Along the Way Victory Over the Canaanites The Capture of Hormah
21:1-3 21:1-3 21:1-3 21:1-3 21:1-3
The Bronze Serpent The Snake Made of Bronze The Bronze Serpent
21:4-5 21:4-9 21:4-9 21:4-9 21:4-5
The Bronze Serpent
21:6-15 21:6-9
From Mount Hor to Moab From Mount Hor to the Valley of the Moabites By Stages to Transjordan
21:10-15 21:10-12a
21:16 21:16-20 21:16-20 21:16-18a 21:16-20




Two Victories King Sihon Defeated Victory Over King Sihon and King Og The Conquest of Transjordan
21:21-30 21:21-32 21:21-30 21:21-30 21:21-22




21:31-32 King Og Defeated 21:31-32 21:31-32 21:31-32
21:33-35 21:33-35 21:33-35 21:33-35 21:33-22:1

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Etc.


1When 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. 2So 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." 3The 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."

21:1 "When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim" Arad is about seventeen miles south of Hebron. Apparently this name refers not only to this king, but also to a city and a region. This very same locality is where Israel was defeated when she tried to take the Promised Land by her own strength (cf. Num. 14:35-45). The first victory against the Canaanites is the exact site of their earlier humiliating defeat. This theory is further strengthened by the fact that the word Atharim (BDB 87) is translated "the way of the spies" by all early versions of the Bible except the Septuagint, which translates it as a place name (probably the name of a pass). This translation as a place name has been followed by both the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible. It is interesting to wonder if the king of Arad attacked Israel because he felt that the death of Aaron would incapacitate them.

▣ "Negev" This (BDB 616) term refers to the semi-arid wilderness with few human inhabitants, in the south of Canaan (i.e., Josh. 15:21-32).

▣ "he fought against Israel and took some of them captive" The rabbis are nervous about Israel losing some of her men in a war (cf. Joshua 7) to the Canaanites. Therefore, the rabbis say that only one slave was captured, but this does not seem to be the thrust of the text.

21:1 "So Israel made a vow to the Lord" This vow (lit. "vowed a vow," BDB 623, KB 674) is in the form of an oath to totally dedicate this king and his cities to the Lord. We later know this by the term herem (BDB 356, KB 353), which means "something utterly dedicated to God" or "to put under the ban." This is what happened to Jericho (cf. Joshua 6). Everything in these cities would die and all of the possessions would be burned because they belonged uniquely to God (i.e., Holy War; see SPECIAL TOPIC: CURSE).

There may be a biblical distinction between "vow" and "oath." A vow is asking God to act first then a required action of a person, but an "oath" focused on a promised act (cf. NIDOTTE, vol. 4, p. 33, #2, paragraph 5).

▣ "indeed deliver" This is an intensified grammatical form (INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and an IMPERFECT VERB of the same root, BDB 678, KB 733).

▣ "into my hand" This is an idiom of power and military victory. See SPECIAL TOPIC: HAND.

21:3 "Hormah" This place name (BDB 356) is the exact site of the earlier defeat (cf. Num. 14:45). It is a word play on herem.

4Then 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. 5The 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."

21:4 "they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea" It is obvious that they are turning back to the southeast. They are trying to circumvent the land of Edom. Whether this is referring to the exact way back to Egypt, which would be ironical because this is the way the people earlier wanted to go back to Egypt, or if it is referring to the Red Sea as meaning by the city of Ezion-Geber or Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba. See SPECIAL TOPIC: THE RED SEA.

▣ "the people became impatient because of the journey" The MT is literally "her soul was short."

Maybe they are upset because

  1. they were heading in the wrong direction
  2. they wanted to enter the land on the heels of their victory against the king of Arad
  3. of the rugged dryness of the territory through which they were traveling

Whatever the reason, this is another characteristic "grumbling" of the book of Numbers.

21:5 This is the same complaining, rebellious spirit that we have seen throughout the book of Numbers. The people of God were attacking Moses but, in reality, they were attacking God and His provisions and plan for them. This attack angered God particularly because they were ungrateful for the supernatural water and the unique bread of heaven, called manna, which He provided for them (cf. Exodus 16 and Numbers 11).

See Special Topics:

  2. MANNA

▣ "miserable food" This ADJECTIVE (BDB 887, KB 1106) occurs only here. There is some disagreement among scholars on its etymological root (cf. NIDOTTE, vol. 3, pp. 933-934). BDB says it means "contemptible" or "worthless." Since the root is uncertain, then context, context, context must be our guide.

6The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7So 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. 8Then 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." 9And 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." 10Now the sons of Israel moved out and camped in Oboth. 11They journeyed from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness which is opposite Moab, to the east. 12From there they set out and camped in Wadi Zered. 13From 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. 14Therefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord
 "Waheb in Suphah,
 And the wadis of the Arnon,
15And the slope of the wadis
 That extends to the site of Ar,
 And leans to the border of Moab."

21:6 "The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people" The term "fiery" (BDB 977 I) has been explained in three different ways.

  1. the color of the snake
  2. the sting of the bite
  3. the fever which the bite caused

We are uncertain as to which one is true. The fact that Moses made a bronze serpent (v. 9) might lend itself to the theory of the color of the snake.

21:7 "intercede with the Lord" This is the only place where the people asked Moses to intercede for them ("intercede," BDB 813, KB 933, Hithpael IMPERATIVE). One of the beautiful things about Moses was his wonderful intercessory prayers on behalf of the rebellious, sinful people of God. See SPECIAL TOPIC: INTERCESSORY PRAYER.

21:8 "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'" This is a very significant theological issue. It is referred to in John 3:14 to speak of Jesus Christ and His being lifted up on the cross (see full note in John online). There was no magic in the bronze serpent but it was faith in God's word that was the key. The people had been balking at God's promises and provisions and now their only means of being delivered from the death sentence of these poisonous snakes was that they believe God and do that which they could not understand. The same is true for our faith in Jesus Christ. It is obvious from the writings of Paul that the Gospel is foolishness to humans, but it is the power of God unto all who believe (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16). The key is that God told them to do it (i.e., John 1:12; 3:16)!

The term "fiery" (BDB 977 I, NIDOTTE, vol. 3, pp. 1289-1290) is related to seraphim (BDB 977 II, cf. Isa. 6:2). If one consults Isa. 14:29; 30:6, possibly a flying serpent. See SPECIAL TOPIC: SERAPHIM.

21:10 Numbers 33 has a brief list of the camping sites of the Israelites during this period (cf. Deuteronomy 2). See especially vv. 40-49. Both "Oboth" and "Iyeabarim" are mentioned in v. 43.

The mountain "Pisgah" is mentioned in v. 47 by its other name, "Nebo," the mountain where Moses will die.

21:12 "Wadi Zered. . .Arnon" There were four nations occupying this trans-Jordan area. The most southern one was Edom, then Moab, then one of the Canaanite tribes called "Amorites," and then further to the north is Ammon. These rivers which flow into the Dead Sea mark the boundary between these different groups (i.e., Zered, Arnon, Jabbock).

21:14 "the Book of the Wars of the Lord" It is somewhat unusual that a written source would have already been written on this since many of the wars do not begin until the book of Joshua (i.e., Book of Jashar, Josh. 10:13). However, because of the poetic verses that follow, many believe that this book was made up of pieces of poetry and songs about Israel's victories in the wilderness and later the Promised Land (i.e., a collected anthology).

21:15 "Ar" This (BDB786 I) refers to a city or region on the northern border of Moab, south of the Arnon River (cf. Numbers 21; 28; Deut. 2:9, 18, 29).

16From there they continued to Beer, that is the well where the Lord said to Moses, "Assemble the people, that I may give them water."

21:16 "Beer" This is the word for "well" (BDB 91). The reason it is hard to locate many of the sites mentioned in the OT is that they were descriptions of a place.

  1. well
  2. fortress
  3. watchtower
  4. pass
  5. ascent

All are common features of many areas on the eastern and western sides of the Jordan River.

17Then 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, 19and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the land of Moab, at the top of Pisgah which overlooks the wasteland."

21:17 The well is personified and is commanded to flow.

  1. spring up ‒ BDB 748, KB 828, Qal IMPERATIVE
  2. sing ‒ BDB 777, KB 854, Qal IMPERATIVE

21:18 This is poetic imagery which is often difficult to interpret. Did

  1. the leaders of Israel really dig the well themselves with their "scepters"/"staffs"?
  2. they "sing" to it?
  3. YHWH do it supernaturally?

Literalism is not "conservative" in poetry, but ridiculous! See SPECIAL TOPIC: HEBREW POETRY and Video Seminar on Biblical Interpretation.

21:20 "the top of Pisgah" This same mountain range is also called by one of the names of the sons of Reuben (cf. Num. 27:12). It is also known as Mt. Nebo (BDB 612 I, cf. Num. 33:47). It has been theorized that the relationshp between Nebo, Pisgah (BDB 820) and the mountains of Abiram (BDB 720) is the same as between Horeb and Sinai. One is referring to the ridge and the other to the peak, but this is simply uncertain. This mountain on the eastern side of the Dead Sea is going to be the perch on which YHWH would allow Moses to view the Promised Land, although he could not enter it. He will die on this mountain peak.

21Then 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." 23But 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. 24Then 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. 25Israel took all these cities and Israel lived in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all her villages. 26For 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. 27Therefore those who use proverbs say,
  "Come to Heshbon! Let it be built!
  So let the city of Sihon be established.
28For a fire went forth from Heshbon,
  A flame from the town of Sihon;
  It devoured Ar of Moab,
  The dominant heights of the Arnon.
29Woe 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.
30But we have cast them down,
  Heshbon is ruined as far as Dibon,
  Then we have laid waste even to Nophah,
  Which reaches to Medeba."


21:22 The request to Sihon was just like the request to the king of Moab (cf. Num. 20:14-21).

NASB, NJB, LXX  "Jazer"
NKJV, Peshitta  "fortified"
NRSV  "strong"
TEV  "strongly defended"
REB  "the country became difficult"

The MT has the ADJECTIVE "strong" (BDB 738), which can denote "strong," "mighty," or "strength."

This is reflected in the NKJV, NRSV, TEV. There are two suggested place names.

  1. NASB, LXX ‒ Jazer
  2. JPSOA ‒ Az

21:25 "villages" This is literally "daughters" (BDB 123 I). It is a Hebrew idiom for unwalled cities/villages.

21:27 "proverbs say" This is an example of Wisdom Literature which is very common to all the cultures of the ANE. This particular proverb seems to be an Amorite taunt song about their war with Moab, but Num. 21:30 has been adapted by the Israelites to their defeat of the Amorites. Originally, God's people attacked only the Canaanite tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan until Moab, one of the descendants of Lot, did them evil (cf. Numbers 22-24).

21:28 "A flame went forth. . .
 A flame from. . ."
This is imagery of war (cf. Zech. 12:10). Fire is often used of judgment or to describe YHWH's glory, but rarely as war imagery. See SPECIAL TOPIC: FIRE.

NASB  "the dominant heights"
NKJV  "the Lords of the heights"
NRSV  "swallowed up the heights"
TEV  "devoured the hills"
NJB  "engulfing the heights"
JPSOA  "the Lords of Bamoth"
REB  "swept the heights"
LXX  "swallowed the steles"
Peshitta  "the worshipers of the high places"

The MT has "the lords" (BDB 127), but the UBS Text Project, p. 237, gives it a "C" rating (i.e., considerable doubt).

Some translations emend the NOUN (ילצב) to a VERB (בצלב) (BDB 118 I), meaning "swallow" or "devour." This makes it parallel with "devoured," BDB 37, KB 46.

Notice that the JPSOA and Peshitta seem to link this word with the Ba'al (i.e., "the Baalim," see SPECIAL TOPIC: FERTILITY WORSHIP OF THE ANE) worship in the high places of Arnon (i.e., Moab). Remember, ANE poetry is slippery stuff!

21:29 "Chemosh" See full note online at Jer. 48:7. Chemosh and Molech are linked in Ugaritic poems to Anath-chemosh. See SPECIAL TOPIC: MOLECH.

NASB  "we have cast them down"
NKJV, Rotherham  "we have shot them"
NRSV  "their posterity perished"
REV  "their descendants are destroyed"
NJB  "their posterity has been destroyed"
JPSOA  "we have cast them down utterly"
LXX  "their offspring shall perish"

The MT has "shoot" (BDB 434, KB 436, Qal IMPERFECT with waw). The LXX translated it as a NOUN, "posterity" or "offspring" (BDB 630). The UBS Text Project, p. 237, gives the MT a "C" rating (i.e., considerable doubt). The LXX fits the context of "holy war" (i.e., herem) against these native inhabitants (cf. Gen. 15:12-21).

▣ "Which reaches to Medeba" The LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch supply the word "fire," which fits the context.

31Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites. 32Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there.

21:32 "dispossessed" The MT has BDB 439, KB 441, Qal IMPERFECT with waw, but the Masoretic scholars altered it to a Qal IMPERFECT with waw (Qere). They tried to make the MT as contextual and accurate as possible based on their traditions and A.D. understanding of the MT text.

33Then 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. 34But 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." 35So they killed him and his sons and all his people, until there was no remnant left him; and they possessed his land.

21:33 See good brief discussion at NIDOTTE, vol. 4, pp. 1022-1023.

21:33-35 This refers to the Israeli defeat of another group of Canaanites close to the Sea of Galilee in the area known as Bashan (cf. Deut. 3:1-17). The city of Enderi is northeast of Ramoth-Gilead in the trans-Jordan area. Numbers 21:35 implies that they were also put under the ban and all of them were destroyed. See SPECIAL TOPIC: CURSE.

21:34 "Do not fear him" This is a Qal IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense (BDB 431, KB 432; see SPECIAL TOPIC: FEAR.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. Since YHWH promised them victory, why is the end of Num. 21:1 so problematic?
  2. What is the difference between "a vow" and "an oath"?
  3. Explain "utterly destroy" (herem).
  4. Why were the people impatient?
  5. Why did YHWH not take the snakes away in answer to Moses' prayer?
  6. What happened to the "bronze serpent"?

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