Feb. 20 Reading: Numbers 21-22 Commentary
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” (Num. 21:9-9)
Numbers 21 – The Bronze Serpent
We are not sure the exact path of all the wilderness wanderings of the people over 40 years. We know that the people sinned against God somewhere near the Wilderness of Paran (Numbers 12:16) by refusing to enter the Promised Land based on the spies negative report (Numbers 14). Moses disobeyed the Lord by striking the rock twice instead of speaking to it Kadesh (Numbers 20). And we know that Aaron died on Mt. Hor which is probably in the Wilderness of Zin near Kadesh.
So most likely the wandering years were spent in the Wilderness of Zin before moving northeast through Edom and Moab to enter the land (see map of possible route). Moses does give a review of the journey of Israel in Numbers 33.
The Bronze Serpent
There are certain passages in the Old Testament that are so full of imagery and foreshadowing it’s not coincidence. Such is the case in Numbers 21 where ONCE AGAIN the people complain about their situation. The nature of the complaint was again food and water (v. 5). As punishment, God sent “fiery serpents” into the camp that bit the people and many died (v. 6).
But once again God showed his mercy and provides a path toward healing. The people recognized their sin and called out to God to remove the serpents from them (v. 7). So God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and sit it on top of a pole. If the bitten people chose to look at the serpent on the pole, they were healed. If they chose to ignore it, they died.
The imagery here is obvious, right? Jesus used this incident in his discussion with Nicodemus (see John 3) to highlight the way in which he would die (hanging on a cross). Just like then, people today that choose to look to Jesus and believe in his sacrificial death on the cross as a substitute for our sins will be saved.
The Beginnings of War and Conquest
Israel is not in the Promised Land yet. But there would be trouble along the way. The nations through which they had to journey were afraid of them and would not grant them passage through their lands. So some initial battles take place as the nation begins to journey north.
The first battle was with the king of Arad of the Canaanites. He attacked and took some people prisoner. But God delivered the people so that they destroyed all their cities. They called that place Hormah, meaning “utter destruction.” (vv. 1-3).
The second confrontation came with King Sihon of the Amorites. He refused to let Israel pass through the land on the King’s Highway (vv. 22-23). Instead of granting peaceful passage, he came out and fought against Israel. But, again with God’s help, they defeated the Amorites, took control of all their cites and lived there (vv. 24-31).
The final confrontation recorded here is with King Og of Bashan who they likewise defeated (vv. 33-35). At this point, the people had journeyed all the way north, east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, across from the city of Jericho (Num. 22:1).
Numbers 22 – Balak Hires a False Prophet
At this point, the journeys of the people are completed in the book of Numbers. The narrative of conquering the land will pick up again in the book of Joshua. He will be the successor of Moses and the one to lead the people into the land.
An interesting diversion happens here in the text as we read a story about Balak, king of the Moabites. He became increasingly afraid of Israel, having seen what they had done to one of his enemies (King Sihon of the Amorites) on their journey (vv. 2-4). So he devised an interesting plan to rid himself of this threat.
He called for a pagan prophet named Balaam to curse Israel (v. 5). Evidently this man was well known as someone who could bring a blessing or curse upon people (v. 6) by influencing the gods. So he was hired and paid a fee to come speak against Israel (v. 7).
But Balaam received a visit from God asking who the men were that had hired him (v. 9). When Balaam describes what King Balak wants of him, God warns Balaam not to curse the people “for they are blessed” (v. 12). So Balaam is hesitant to go with the men King Balak has sent (v. 14).
But upon further pleading and the promise of great honor being bestowed upon him (vv. 15-17), he requests to seek the word of the Lord one more time (vv. 18-19). That night, God instructed him to go but with the caveat that Balaam could only speak the words that God gave him to speak (v. 20). So the next day, Balaam saddled his donkey and went with the men (v. 21).
The Angel Tries to Stop Balaam
Evidently Balaam had no intention of speaking the words God put in his mouth. How do we know that? Because verse 22 tells us that “God’s anger was aroused because he went.” God had told him to go in the first place. So it doesn’t make sense that God would now become angry unless Balaam had evil intent in his heart.
God showed up in the form of “the Angel of the Lord” somewhere along the road where Balaam traveled. The only thing is that Balaam and his two servants did not see the angel. The only one that did was the donkey on which Balaam rode (v. 23).
The donkey turned off the road and went into a field, which caused Balaam to beat the donkey to get it back on the road. Further along, the angel again appeared in a narrower path between some vineyards. Here, the donkey had less space to maneuver and she pushed herself up against a wall and crushed Balaam’s foot. He was not happy about that and struck her again (vv. 24-25).
Finally, further along in the journey, the angel appeared in a space where the donkey had no place to move. Not wanting to move forward, the donkey laid down under Balaam. He’s furious and strikes the donkey for the third time (v. 27).
A Talking Donkey?
For the second time in recorded history (see Gen. 3), an animal talks:
“Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ And Balaam said to the donkey, ‘Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!’ So the donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?’ And he [Balaam] said, ‘No.'” (vv. 28-30)
At that moment, Balaam’s eyes were opened and he saw the angel standing with a drawn sword. Turns out that by stopping, the donkey had actually saved Balaam’s life. The angel tells Balaam that he would have killed him because “your way is perverse before Me” (v. 32). That is another indication that Balaam had no intention of obeying the words of God.
The angel reiterates again that Balaam can only speak what God puts in his mouth (v. 35). Upon arriving, Balaam informed Balak of his dilemma (v. 38). In preparation, Balaam offers sacrifices to his false gods (v. 40).
What will he ultimately do? His prophecies will be revealed in the next two chapters.
Questions to Consider:
Complaining never turns out well. Never. Yes, circumstances are challenging at times and we wish things were different. But a heart bent on complaining is one that has forgotten the goodness of God. What do you normally complain about?
Even when we “get what we deserve” based on our foolish behavior, God is still merciful. He is still there to provide and guide us into picking up the pieces of our mess. How have you seen God turn a personal mistake into something good?
God used a supernatural event (opening the donkey’s mouth to speak) to get Balaam’s attention. Has God ever used a dramatic event to get your attention and focus back to Him?
What other points would you want to know about in our Numbers 21-22 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.