Our passage picks up today right after the death of Aaron on Mt. Hor. Israel, having to go around Edom instead of through it, were coming up from the south. Arad was one of the southern-most Canaanite “countries”. The king of Arad, hearing (perhaps from Edom?) that Israel was coming his way, preemptively attacks Israel (21:1). Israel then prays to God and promises to devote the cities of these southern Canaanites to destruction if He gives them victory (v. 2), which He does (v. 3).
While there is, and always has been, debate about what exactly this devotion to destruction would entail (death for women and children, etc.), we will not examine that here (we’ll get there in Deuteronomy and Joshua). What is important to note for now is that we are told the Canaanites that attacked Israel and their cities were devoted to destruction, and the site of Israel’s victory was called Hormah (Hebrew חָרְמָה – “to dedicate”). But this is not the first time we are hearing of Hormah. Back in Numbers 14, after Israel believed the bad report of the ten spies, and after those spies were killed by God, Israel reluctantly tried to take the land (see Num 14:39-45). They suffered a great defeat and we read:
Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah. – Numbers 14:45 (ESV)
Here in chapter 21, forty years later, we see that Israel wins their first victory against the Canaanites in the very spot of the previous generation’s defeat. A contrast is being drawn between the faithless and the faithful. For the faithless generation, God was not with them (14:42). For the faithful, God gave them the victory (21:3). The previous generation’s failure (faith) was this generations success.
However, we see the faith of this generation waver just like their fathers’. In verse 5, we see that the complaints against God are not generational, they are inherent in fallen man. So God punishes Israel with “fiery serpents” (v. 6). To stop the punishment, God has Moses make a bronze serpent which he sets on a pole, so that all who look to it are healed from the effects of the serpents (vv. 8-9). We have come across serpents twice before. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent is the instigator of man’s sin. Before the Exodus, Moses’ staff became a serpent in order to prove to Israel that God was with them. The serpents here in Numbers 21 are no doubt a call back to the Garden as a reminder of sin, and a pointer to Israel’s sin. The serpent on the pole is a pointer to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ (see John 3:14), our Immanuel.
We read in verses 21-30 the defeat of Sihon and the Amorites. In verses 31-35, the defeat of Og and Bashan. God gives both into the hands of Israel. In both cases, we read that Israel possessed their lands (v. 24, 35). God has begun to give the land of promise to His people.
Chapters 22-24 record the story of Balak, the king of Moab, calling on the pagan prophet Balaam to curse Israel. The victories provided by God has put fear in the inhabitants of the surrounding lands (22:3 – see Ex 15:15). Balaam at first refuses to go with the Moabites at God’s command (v. 12), but then goes at God’s command (v. 20). We see, though, that Balaam’s intentions are less than pure through the account of the Angel of the Lord (see v. 32). It is a stern warning not to go beyond what God gives him to say (v. 35), which Balaam heeds (v. 38).
In the first oracle of Balaam (23:7-10), we see that God’s favor is on Israel (v. 8) among all nations (v. 9) and has blessed them in number (v. 10). In his second oracle (vv. 18-24), we see that God is fulfilling in Israel His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 19). It is God Who works His power for them, so they can withstand anything, and their victory is guaranteed (vv. 21-24).
In the third oracle of Balaam (24:3-9), we see that Israel’s favored position among the nations is to be coveted (vv. 5-6). The idea of trees/plants being planted beside a river (v. 6) is a recurring theme throughout the Bible that refers to being firmly established in God. In verse 7, we see a reference to Israel’s king. This is God Himself (see 23:21). But there’s more. In 2 Samuel 5:12, very similar language is used to describe God’s establishment of David’s kingdom. Both there and here in Numbers 24, the ultimate reference is to Christ. In verse 9, we see an explicit reference to the promise of God to Abraham (Gen 12:3) and Isaac’s blessing of Jacob (Gen 27:29).
The fourth and final oracle (24:15-24) is the most overtly Messianic. Balaam “sees” God, but he doesn’t see Him in His fullness, and will not until the Star and the Scepter (King) come. This is Christ (see Rev 22:16, Gen 49:10, Heb 1:8). Beginning in verse 18, we see that the victory and subsequent reign of this coming King will be over all the nations, leading to the destruction of the enemies of God’s people.
We see that after pronouncing these four blessings on Israel, Balaam goes home. Tomorrow, though, we will see that his story is not over…